07/15/2019 - 07/19/2019
Once we were finished with Shanghai we only had nine days left to fill in our itinerary. We still wanted to spend a few days in Beijing at the end so we chose Tianjin to fill the gap since it was the largest city in eastern China we hadn't visited. In fact, Tianjin is the third largest city in China although it receives much less attention from travelers than Beijing, Shanghai, and many smaller cities. Internet searches didn't produce a long list of things to do in Tianjin, but we were confident that we could stay busy for three days in such a large city.
We arrived on a late flight from Shanghai and didn't get into our Airbnb until close to midnight. As usual, we were on an upper floor of a tall condo building. The dilapidated lobby and elevator weren't encouraging, but the apartment itself was clean, modern, and spacious. It was also furnished rather ostentatiously with matching faux Victorian living room and bedroom sets. China is never short of surprises.
By the time we got ourselves out of the apartment the next morning the heat and humidity had already become oppressive. Our apartment complex was a typical Chinese block of modern high-rises amidst a mostly flat expanse of enormous boulevards. We had a noodle breakfast and took a short walk around our immediate neighborhood. I found an unusual pair of sandals with a drawstring-type closure and we built our own salad at a small produce market. Unfortunately when the salad bar owner tossed our selections with seasonings I was too late to stop her from throwing a huge spoonful of salt into the mix, which rendered the final product virtually inedible.
Across the street from our apartment complex is Tianjin's Ancient Culture Street, which is a very touristy rendition of an old commercial street with early 20th century styled buildings which now house various retail establishments. While much of it was schlock, there were enough stores devoted to genuine local artisanry to keep us entertained for a couple of hours.
I wandered into one small shop whose proprietor was serving various alcoholic drinks in small clay saucers. He demonstrated that once I drank the contents of the saucer, I should heave it against the far wall of the shop. Indeed, there was a huge pile of broken saucers at the bottom of the wall. Mei Ling joined me and we selected some rice-derived moonshine for ourselves and plum juice for the kids, and we all took a turn at heaving our saucers at the wall except for Ian who managed to drop his on the floor immediately.
Our last adventure on Ancient Cultural Street was trying nitro puffs for the first time. I'm not sure how liquid nitrogen became a part of ancient Chinese culture but it was a fun experience for everyone.
We walked back east and soon found ourselves at the western bank of the Hai River, a wide channel that flows through the center of Tianjin before emptying into Bohai Bay. The other side of the river looked to have the most activity so we set across the bridge that stretched out in front of us. The bridge was lined with snack vendors who were cooking with rickety-appearing propane tanks. To the north we could see the red arch of the Jingang Bridge and behind that the huge Ferris wheel called Tianjin Eye. On the south side of the bridge locals were diving acrobatically into the river from a concrete esplanade.
We walked south along the esplanade which was an excellent way to see the mixture of classical buildings and modern skyscrapers that Tianjin had to offer. The beauty and variety of styles of the many bridges was reminiscent of Bilbao.
The esplanade seemed to be a beloved place for locals to walk, ride bicycles, and enjoy amateur street performances. In the space of an hour we encountered a saxophone player, an operatic dance, and groups of middle aged locals dancing and marching for exercise. Our kids were thrilled to be able to join in the last of these activities. The best part is that nothing felt like it was manufactured for tourism, mainly because there were hardly any tourists there except for other Chinese. It was just people getting outside on a pleasant summer evening to relax and do the things they loved.
As Tianjin slipped into darkness the river promenade remained brightly illuminated by streetlamps and strategically-placed floodlights. Buildings and bridges acquired an unearthly and beautiful glow. The skyscrapers to the south were also artfully highlighted, their geometric outlines encased in rectangles and parabolas of light. It was as though the entire city had been engineered to create a nocturnal spectacle.
Our evening's journey ended at the Italian Style Street, a touristy development at the site of the former Italian concession. The area was renovated into its current form and opened to the public in 2008 to coincide with the Beijing Olympics. Contrary to its name, the area is actually a small cluster of cobblestone streets with a few older buildings but nothing that struck me as particularly Italian in character. Of the many international restaurants on the main pedestrian street, only a few were Italian. We ultimately settled on a French restaurant called La Seine which proved to be extraordinarily good. It's hard to compare French with Chinese cuisine, but it was certainly one of the more enjoyable meals of our six week trip.
We had barely noticed how far we had walked to our final destination but the prospect of returning on foot after our huge meal was very unappealing. Mei Ling hailed a cab with her Chinese ridesharing app and we returned to the apartment very satisfied with our first evening in Tianjin. Despite the city's lack of international recognition, the walk along the Hai River had been one of the most interesting and pleasurable experiences of the trip so far.
I wish I could say that our first evening in Tianjin was just a taste of what the city had in store for us, but it turned out to be the high point of our three day stay. The next morning we took a long taxi ride to the southern part of the city to hunt for a seafood market I had read about on a travel blog. In general there was a surprising absence of food markets in central Tianjin and this was my only lead after extensive searching. When we finally arrived after much driver confusion we found a wholesale market that had only a few vendors among an array of deserted warehouses, and no retail customers in sight. It was a complete wash, and it took quite a while for Mei Ling to find a driver on her Chinese app to get us out of there. The driver took us to a seafood restaurant which was somewhat a fish market in its own right, so we were able to get the food we wanted if not the experience.
One of China's special qualities is that it has some of the most beautiful city parks I've ever visited. I love discovering the creative landscaping, secluded paths, and serene lakes of these urban oases. The parks in Dalian and Beijing had been particularly awesome. Tianjin's largest park is called Water Park because most of the surface area is comprised of two enormous lakes separated by a chain of islands connected by bridges. On the way to the park I saw an unfinished skyscraper from the window of the taxi. There were no other buildings around it which made it hard to judge its height but it seemed gigantic. The taxi driver told Mei Ling that it was the Goldin Finance 117 tower and it had been under construction since 2008. It was originally supposed to be completed in 2014 but construction has been suspended multiple times due to lack of financing. If the building is completed as scheduled in 2020, it will be the fifth tallest in the world at 1959 feet. My photo from the taxi window through the smog doesn't do the building justice so I stole an aerial picture from this awesome skyscraper message board.
When we arrived at Water Park we took a wrong entrance and ended up at the adjacent Zhou Enlai Memorial. Zhou is revered in China for his role in the Chinese Civil War and his position as the first premier of the People's Republic of China. It wasn't really our kind of place but the kids got a kick out of touring the airplane that Zhou received as a gift from Stalin.
Once we figured out how to get to Water Park it did not disappoint. At the northern end of the park was a Bonsai Garden with a classical Chinese pavilion. The kids were amazed by the miniature trees and Cleo was very skeptical when I told her they were regular trees that had been trimmed very carefully over years.
The trail over boardwalks and bridges from the north to the south side of the park was truly remarkable. We were surrounded on every side by tranquil lakes and lush vegetation, yet on the other side of the water was the imposing urban landscape of Tianjin. The park wasn't as meticulously maintained as People's Park in Dalian but it was just as beautiful in its own way.
On the way back to the center of town we drove around the Tianjin Radio and Television Tower, which is the eighth tallest freestanding tower in the world. For a city that is barely on the tourism radar, Tianjin has a surprising number of visually arresting sights.
Tianjin is another city that has largely lost its night markets, if it ever had any. Our research uncovered a couple of food streets, but they proved to be a pale imitation of true night markets. They were more similar to Ancient Cultural Street with lonely vendors selling traditional snacks in a largely deserted cavernous building.
It was dark by the time we arrived at Minyuan Stadium, a former sports arena which is now a multipurpose space for artistic performances, boutiques, and restaurants. In front of the Neoclassical entrance arch was a sports monument that had a large installation of illuminated piano keys arranged around it. Dozens of kids were jumping on the keys which caused them to blink and change colors. Inside the stadium people were congregated on the concrete bleachers even though there was nothing happening on the small stage at the center except for a few kids skateboarding. Inside the covered archways was a somewhat sterile but crowded night market devoted to crafts and artisanal foods. As we left the stadium we encountered a crowd watching middle-aged Chinese women dancing to Irish-sounding music being played by Chinese men with harmonica and bongo drums. China seems to have become one of the world's foremost cultural melting pots even without having much of a foreign community. We had dinner at a steakhouse in Minyuan Stadium but couldn't recreate the magic from the previous night at the French restaurant. The steaks were tough and greasy despite the Western prices.
We started our last day in Tianjin with a walk up the Western bank of the Hai to the Yongle Bridge, where we bought tickets for an evening ride on the Tianjin Eye. On the way we noticed that many of the trees had what looked like a large open insect cocoon nailed to their trunks. We were unable to think of a reason why anyone would do this, nor could I find out anything online afterwards.
We spent most of the day in the Heping District of central Tianjin. The Porcelain House is a large mansion in the French Concession area whose current owner has decorated it with thousands of porcelain jars and porcelain vases. It reminded me a lot of the Dickeyville Grotto in Wisconsin, an odd convergence of Eastern and Western aesthetics. It was quite an interesting and beautiful structure, but it was also a quite expensive tourist trap so we took photos outside and moved on.
We took a long walk southeast towards another Tianjin landmark, St. Joseph's Cathedral. On the way we encountered a large shopping mall with several food courts which had much better offerings than the touristy official food streets. With full stomachs we pressed onward to the cathedral, which turned out to be a pleasantly symmetric red and white-striped confection. The hundred-year-old Roman Catholic church was constructed from bricks shipped from France and seemed quite incongruous against a backdrop of drab modern highrises.
At this point we were relatively close to Minyuan Stadium so we decided to take another look during the day time. On the way we passed a barbershop and all three of us boys got our hair cut under the watchful eye of Mei Ling.
The area around Minyuan Stadium is called Wu Da Dao, or Five Great Avenues. The area is known for its many Western style buildings that were built during the concession era in the early 20th century. During the day we found the stadium and surroundings to be almost completely deserted. We walked around the immediate area and didn't see any buildings that were particularly remarkable. Tourists were being loaded into horse-drawn carriages for tours of the area but we decided we'd already seen enough Western style buildings at Badaguan in Qingdao.
The time had come for us to return to the Tianjin Eye for our scheduled ride. The enormous Ferris Wheel was already illuminated in the gathering dusk. There was a long line of people who already had tickets but Mei Ling was somehow able to negotiate with a security guard to get us past the bulk of it. Even so we had to wait on a very slow moving line for more than an hour after our ride was supposed to have begun. Eventually we got on the wheel which also turned excruciating slowly. It took forty minutes to complete the revolution by which time the kids were totally bored and jumping around the small cabin. Thanks to the many tall condo buildings in the area, the view from the top wasn't that much better than it had been from the ground. Of all the things we had done in Tianjin, riding the Eye had certainly been the least worthwhile.
For our last dinner in Tianjin I had a lead on a place called Shiyue Food Street in the Hebei District on the east side of the river. I'd only found one mention of it so I wasn't sure it really existed, but fortunately our taxi driver knew exactly where it was. There weren't many restaurants open on the street but at least it was outdoors and crowded. It was the only authentic night market we found in Tianjin.
We had now been to the five largest cities in China and Tianjin was by far the least impressive, which explains why Tianjin is barely a blip on the tourist radar. I was still happy we'd visited, mainly for the experience of walking alongside the Hai River and eating at the Italian Style Town. However, there was nothing else about Tianjin that particularly stood out even when compared to smaller cities like Dalian or Shenyang. I think Tianjin is best visited as an overnight trip from Beijing so that the evening can be enjoyed on the river and perhaps a visit to Ancient Cultural Street or Water Park in the morning before returning. And definitely, for sure, skip the Tianjin Eye.